AAt the time of writing, Nightmare Alley is the longest of the Oscars: it’s the complete underdog among bookies, and absolutely no one tips it. But just because it won’t win the Oscar for Best Picture doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. It’s a big, brash old-style picture, crammed with heavyweight artists oozing class, and put together with seemingly effortless aplomb by director Guillermo del Toro – who, of course, has pedigree at that level, having won that exact honor in 2018’s The Shape gained from water.
Well, The Shape of Water was admittedly a bit lucky to win ahead of Dunkirk, Phantom Thread and Get Out, but perhaps its eccentricities and references to Creature from the Black Lagoon made it distinctive. Nightmare Alley is certainly a less obviously weird film, but like The Shape of Water, it has roots in Hollywood’s pulp past; a remake of a 1947 film noir by Tyrone Power, one of the freaky, bizarre kind of noirs, as opposed to the taciturn hat-and-gun type or the hapless, head-first-love type. Noir hasn’t been part of the serious Oscars conversation for years: while the definition is pretty stretchy and some might argue for the Joker, the last contender was probably LA Confidential in the mid-’90s. Last but not least, we have Del Toro to thank for that.
But Nightmare Alley is much more than an expensively clad exercise in genre: It’s one of those films whose undeniably brilliant acting elevates it to a level it might not otherwise have achieved. Sometimes you wonder what Bradley Cooper is good for, but the answer is right here: behind the mundane, down-to-earth charm lies an actor of astute intelligence, who casts his role as Stan Carlisle, a fairground con man who tries and fails for the great fraud, a truly tragic dimension. Mildly handsome American leads are fairly regularly referred to as the new Gary Cooper, but Cooper may have more in common with his predecessor than just a last name.
It’s also fortunate that Del Toro has Cate Blanchett on hand as the devious analyst who underpins Carlisle’s fake media game by giving him information on the wealthy guys who hire him to do readings. In the hands of an inferior actor, the role might not be much special, but as with everything Blanchett does, it’s charged. The same goes for Rooney Mara, who as Carlisle’s increasingly cocky wife has what is usually a rather thankless task; The fact that Del Toro can install someone of her caliber gives the film weight at every turn. Conversely, Willem Dafoe is pretty much at home as a geek show operator: his lecture to Carlisle on how he snags his geeks is a masterclass in factual wickedness.
In another era, Nightmare Alley would have had a decent shot at the grand prize, but even so, it’s a bit of a mystery that none of its stars are nominated for any of the acting awards. It’s probably just too early in the noir revival cycle, we can only hope it continues like this.